Carp Diem

Los dias abandonan
su piel, como las culebras,
con la sola excepción
de los días de fiesta.

Estos son los mismos
de nuestras madres viejas.
Sus tardes son largas colas
de moaré y lentejuelas.

The days shed their skin,
like snakes,
with the sole exception
of the holidays.

Those are like they were in the days
of our old mothers.
Their afternoons are long trains
of moiré and sequins.
—Federico García Lorca, “Teorías. Tío vivo”


c1The blue tubs have finally appeared on the big square near our neighborhood grocery store. Kapr, they read: carp. The traditional Czech Christmas Eve meal—fried carp with potato salad.

Penitential in spirit, murky in practice—a bottom-feeder whose flesh is cleansed (so a Czech acquaintance tells us) by several days’ soaking in the family bathtub. The custom is not without its trauma. Our friend reports that as a kid she always hid when her dad finally bludgeoned the fish that had become something of a pet. Today, to her relief, he buys them dead.

c2By mid-afternoon today, the two fishmongers at the blue tubs in our neighborhood were doing a quick trade—and to judge by the state of their aprons, most customers were buying to fill their refrigerators, not their bathtubs.

Rituals form the core of holidays like the one the Christian West is about to observe, but we don’t always recognize them as such. I’ve often wondered what aliens would think of our practice of cutting down a live tree and bringing it inside the house in midwinter and hanging little pendants from it (a rite the Czechs, too, have adopted: a friend tells us their tree goes up on Christmas Eve and has real candles).

Surely the act of installing a fir tree in your living room is no less bizarre a rite than having a street vendor slaughter a giant goldfish for dinner.

In ritual, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga writes, “the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin: law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primeval soil of play.”

Which is one reason the holidays, as Lorca so lyrically suggests, wear sequined trains, while the rest of the calendar dresses in sturdy shoes and knee-length skirts. One of the pleasures of travel is the chance to see—and newly consider—the difference.c4

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